Although he has been in Philadelphia for decades, Rakesh Ramola treasures a few vivid memories from his childhood in Mumbai. One in particular involves the pilfering of ripe mangoes.
Ramola, chef/owner of Indeblue restaurants in Collingswood and on 13th Street in Philadelphia, recalls playing cricket as a boy and running to retrieve an errant ball from a neighbor's rooftop. The roof was shaded by a large mango tree and littered with ripe, fragrant fruit. "I grabbed as many as I could, and they fell and made a loud noise. The family came out, and I was caught. But we couldn't resist mangoes when they were ripe — too delicious."
Truly, can there possibly be a fruit more luscious than a mango?
Ramola, who lives with his wife, Heather, and their three daughters in their new home in Marlton, remembers mangoes' being sacred in India, where the thin-skinned yellow fruit was first grown about 5,000 years ago. Keeping company with silk and spices, mango seeds traveled with migrants from Asia to the Middle East, East Africa, and South America beginning around A.D. 300 or 400.
Although hundreds of varieties are sold globally year-round — more than 400 in India alone — the sweetest mangoes are in Philadelphia grocery stores from early summer through October. Harvested primarily from Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean, the most common kinds sport preppy-sounding names like Tommy Atkins, Haden, Kent, Keitt, Honey, and Alphonso, all varieties prized for their sweet flesh and dearth of sinewy fibers. At his modern Indian restaurants, Ramola uses mango in chutney paired with spicy curry, in the yogurt-based mango lasi drink, and in a dense mango kheer, a cardamom-flavored rice pudding layered with mango, dried fruits, and nuts. "It's a fruit," he said, "that is at home at every course."
Naturally sweet, low in calories, and high in vitamin C and antioxidants, mangoes are a staple of the Cuban food that Guillermo Pernot creates for menus at Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Washington, and Orlando. "I buy them by the flat, and my daughter just starts eating them one by one until they're gone," said the Wynnewood resident, who travels frequently to Cuba for culinary research.
Pernot uses mangoes in all kinds of ways at Cuba Libre, pairing their sweet tang with the heat of chile peppers in salsa, whirring them into tropical smoothies, and harnessing their rootsy, unripe goodness in salads and soups. Then there's the signature mango butter, served alongside pressed Cuban bread at the start of every Cuba Libre meal. One of the most popular items on the new dinner menu is pargo à la plancha: olive-oil-griddled Florida red snapper topped with a mango salsa, served with coconut basmati rice and candied cashews on the side.
Mangoes deserve more respect in the kitchen, according to Food Network regular Seamus Mullen, chef/owner of the Spanish restaurants Tertulia and El Colmado in Manhattan. "People think of eating mango as a fruit, but not necessarily cooking with it. There are many varieties, and they're all very different." Green mango is firm enough to stand up to being shredded on a mandolin or grated like jicama or green papaya, said Mullen. "Then you can stir-fry it, make a salad, or blend it with cucumber for gazpacho. It's a very versatile fruit."
Mullen is so passionate about this aromatic fruit's adaptability that he joined U.K. Iron Chef Judy Joo to lead the fourth annual Mango & Food Festival this month on the island of Nevis. Hands-on-cooking classes, mango-inspired feasts, chef smackdowns, and an open-air tasting featuring celebrity and local chefs on Oualie Beach drew enthusiastic crowds.
Nevis — a tiny, 36-square-mile volcanic island in the Eastern Caribbean known as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton — is home to 12,000 people and about 44 varieties of mango. The locals and tourists who flock to the island's white-sand beaches and sugar-mill boutique hotels are not the only fans of the ripe mangoes that perfume the marketplace through the fall. Mango season drives the monkeys plum crazy. Colonies of green vervet monkeys roam the former sugar-producing archipelago, gorging themselves on the silky fruit until they literally fall out of the trees.
Stephanie Reitano understands how the monkeys feel. "I am a little psycho about mangoes when they come into season," said the chef/owner of Capogiro Gelato and Capofitto Pizza. " I'm crazy for them. I only use one kind — Alfonso, from Mexico, a luscious yellow fruit with a teardrop shape, like half of the yin and yang. The consistency is perfect — as if an avocado and a peach had a baby, with dense, sturdy flesh that is just bursting with flavor." She makes mango sorbets and sometimes mango yogurt, adding a squeeze of lime and a pinch of cayenne to the mix.
Catching the mango at the ideal ripeness for its destined use is key to getting the most flavor out of the tropical super fruit, said the Argentine-born Pernot. "You have to smell your fruit," he said. "Mangoes should be firm and fragrant. For a shake or cocktail puree, you use a very ripe mango. Buy a flat, and use one-third green for salads, one-third just ripe enough for something like a salsa or ceviche, and the last third for blending."
Green mangoes should be kept at room temp until they ripen, Pernot said. Then move them to the fridge to slow down the process. Mangoes freeze well, and Pernot is a fan of using frozen cubed mango he buys at Trader Joe's for blending in smoothies and purees. "You can add a little bit of fresh lime juice to add some extra zing," said the two-time James Beard Award winner. "Ripe mangoes last for about five days in the refrigerator, although of course at my house, they never last that long."
The only thing tricky about a mango is cutting it, thanks to the long, flat seed in the center of the fruit.
- Stand the mango on your cutting board stem end down and hold. Place your knife about ¼-inch from the widest center line and cut down through the mango.
- Flip the mango around and repeat this cut on the other side. The resulting ovals of mango flesh are known as the "cheeks." What's left in the middle is mostly the mango seed.
- Cut parallel slices into the mango flesh, being careful not to cut through the skin. Turn the mango cheek ¼ rotation and cut another set of parallel slices to make a checkerboard pattern and deliver the perfect dice.